In the early months of 1942, the newly formed state of Slovakia entered into negotiations with the government of Germany, and in particular with Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official in charge of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem.” The negotiations centered on the deportation to Galicia and Poland of the roughly 90,000 Jewish citizens of Slovakia. Eichmann demanded that Slovakia send only Jews capable of labor; the Slovak government, which represented a population that was almost entirely Catholic, initially complied, but was unhappy at being left with the care of the elderly and children. Accordingly, it proposed to Eichmann that, “in the spirit of Christianity,” families be deported together. Eichmann grudgingly relented.

As news of the planned deportation spread, the panicked Jewish community in the capital city of Bratislava turned first to the Vatican chargé d’affaires, Monsignor Giuseppe Burzio, and then, because Burzio happened to be absent, directly to Pope Pius XII. An anguished letter of appeal composed by the community’s leaders was entrusted to the papal nuncio in Budapest, Archbishop Angelo Rotta, through whom the letter reached the Vatican on March 13, 1942.

“Most Holy Father,” it implored, “No one [else] can help us.” Not only had everything—businesses, homes, funds, even clothing—been taken away, but “we are to be shipped out to Lublin, Poland” and there “condemned to annihilation.” Would the Holy Father, in the name of humanity and fellow feeling, admonish the president of Slovakia, himself a Catholic priest, to block their expulsion and certain massacre? “We place all our hope and confidence in Your Holiness, as the safest refuge of all the persecuted.”

Less than two weeks later, the first transport of 1,000 young Slovakian Jews boarded a train bound for Auschwitz. Six weeks later, more than 40,000 of their countrymen and women had been deported.

“The safest refuge of all the persecuted.” At the time, these words were loaded with an impossible pathos. Today, they are freighted with an irony their desperately sincere authors could never have intended. Far from being celebrated as a defender of the tyrannized, Pope Pius XII has today come to be excoriated for near-criminal passivity in crisis and even, by some, for complicity in genocide, falling under such severe censure that one writer, and a Catholic at that, has dared to christen him “Hitler’s Pope.”




This harsh judgment was unthinkable not only in 1942 but through the early 1960’s. Although, during the war itself, opinion among leaders of the Allied governments was far from unanimous, after the war the chorus of praise was virtually unqualified. Almost everywhere, Pius was celebrated as a courageous antagonist of Nazism, a benefactor of victims of the war, and a compassionate leader in resistance and rescue efforts on behalf of Jewish civilians threatened with deportation. On the occasion of his death in 1958, no less significant a figure than Golda Meir, then foreign minister of the state of Israel, eulogized him as one whose “voice . . . was raised for the victims, . . . speaking out on the great moral truths.” Similar sentiments were expressed by others, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Albert Einstein.

The chorus did not exactly stop singing in the 1960’s. But it was unceremoniously interrupted by the loud dissent of a German playwright named Rolf Hochhuth. In Hochhuth’s 1963 play Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy, a sarcastic twist on the Pope’s claim to be the vicar of Christ on earth), Pius appears on stage condemning the wickedness not of the Nazis but of the Allies, whose acts of war have ruined the artistic heritage of Rome and depreciated the value of Vatican investments. When a messenger bursts into the room to tell the Holy Father about the death camps in Poland, Pius waves him off and continues to execrate the Allies.

Hochhuth’s play was a popular smash, staged in virtually every Western country, translated into more than twenty languages, and inspiring more than 450 reviews and articles in English alone. Indeed, the Pius that most people came to know in the 1960’s—and, I think, still know today—is traceable to The Deputy and its influence. This Pius is a cold, calculating figure, scandalously callous in the face of suffering and supine in the face of unspeakable crimes that, had he intervened with moral force and courage, he might have prevented. As Hochhuth himself put it, with the crudeness that marks every line of his drama, “Perhaps never before in history have so many people paid with their lives for the passivity of one single politician.”

What brought about this sudden and astonishing transmogrification from moral hero to, as one of Pius’s defenders has said, the protagonist of a black legend? Many factors can be adduced, but one of them was surely the reformist atmosphere of the time within Catholicism itself. By 1962, with the convening of the Second Vatican Council under John XXIII, the Church had just entered an unprecedented phase of self-examination and reconstruction, in which critics of its central authority were no longer dismissed as unregenerate foes. For many, the Hochhuth play raised painful questions about the role of the Catholic Church at all levels—not just the papal—during the Holocaust, questions that led to even more agonizing reflections on the credibility of Christianity itself.



In this new atmosphere, and in the hope of preventing still further caricatures of Vatican activity, Pope Paul VI—who in 1963 succeeded John XXIII as pontiff—waived the usual 75-year moratorium on publication of materials from the Vatican archives and appointed a team of four Jesuit scholars to select and publish the war-connected acts and documents of the Holy See. The result was an eleven-volume collection consisting mostly of dispatches and telegrams sent between the Vatican and its international network of nunciatures and legations; included as well were memoranda and extremely valuable private notes written by the upper-echelon staff in the office of the Vatican secretary of state.

While hardly without flaws—the editors chose not to publish a number of crucially informative documents, and their principles of selection were sometimes questionable—these volumes have proved an immense contribution to scholarship. And yet, over the fifteen or so years in which the documents were being published, let alone in the two decades since the appearance of the last of them in 1981, they have been but meagerly consulted by many of those who have entered the debate over what the Vatican knew about the Final Solution and why it acted as it did. Although the number of such combatants has grown exponentially in the last few years, with both detractors and defenders of Pius jumping into an increasingly emotional, not to say venomous, fray,1 neither side has distinguished itself by deep immersion in the published documents upon which any informed historical or moral judgment must be based.

And this is to say nothing of the Vatican’s un-published documents. These, indeed, have recently become the occasion of a quarrel. In July, a special panel of Jewish and Catholic historians, appointed jointly by the Vatican itself and an international Jewish organization, suspended its work amid accusations that the Holy See was refusing to release all of its relevant archival material. Responding for the Vatican, the Rev. Peter Gumpel said that the documents already shown to the historians demonstrated conclusively that Pius had “made every possible effort to save as many lives as possible.”

Gumpel is hardly alone in this judgment of the wartime record; as we shall see, one (Jewish) historian has even maintained grandiosely that Pius XII deserves to be regarded as a “righteous Gentile.” But before any such claims and counterclaims can be considered, there is another, analytically prior one that begs to be examined.

In the wake of The Deputy, some defenders of Pius argued emphatically that both he and the Vatican were, in fact, largely unaware of the horrors being perpetrated in Russia, Poland, and elsewhere, and of their awesome and cruel dimensions; or, at the least, that the Vatican was dependent upon reports that were as nebulous, tendentious, or unverifiable as they were scanty. Among those making this argument were, as it happens, the Jesuits who would become the editors of the Vatican war documents. More recently, the last surviving member of that team, the historian Pierre Blet, contended in Pius XII and the Second World War (1999) that “as long as the war lasted, the fate of the deportees was shrouded in obscurity”—Blet also uses the phrase, “a curtain of fog”—and that the Pope had no knowledge of the extent of the Holocaust until the end of the war.

But does the evidence, whether published or as yet unpublished, support this idea? The question is essential, for Pius XII cannot logically be criticized for inaction if he was ignorant of the monstrous crimes occurring in the East and across Europe. Only after answering it can one proceed to such other questions as what the Vatican did or did not do with the knowledge it possessed; why it did what it did; and what else it might have done or should have done.




By the autumn of 1941, the expropriation and concentration of Europe’s Jewish population were well under way. The Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units that followed behind German forces in Operation Barbarossa—the invasion and occupation of the Soviet Union—were doing their work. Upon arriving in a given locale, German SS and police personnel, with the aid of the Wehrmacht, first shot Jewish prisoners and then all Jewish men, women, and children as well as Roma (Gypsies), Soviet political personnel, partisans, and others judged racially or politically unacceptable. By the spring of 1943, more than a million Jews and tens of thousands of others had been shot to death by the men of these mobile squads. Some 33,000 would perish in the infamous two-day massacre at Babi Yar, a ravine northwest of the Ukrainian capital city of Kiev. Many there were killed in mobile vans by means of poison gas.

The Vatican had little information about this phase of the Holocaust. Nonetheless, some detailed data did arrive in Rome. There were at least four such reports, and they were among the very first to be reviewed by any government in the West.

The first, which arrived as early as late October 1941, came from one of the Vatican’s own men, the chargé d’affaires in Slovakia whom we have already met. On October 27, Monsignor Burzio revealed in a letter to Secretary of State Luigi Maglione that, according to Slovak military chaplains returning from the front, Jewish prisoners of war on territories overrun by German forces were being shot at once. In addition, he said, Jewish civilians, regardless of age or gender, were being rounded up and systematically “suppressed” (soppressi, i.e., massacred).

The Vatican’s response to this report was, to put it mildly, odd. Diplomats in the secretariat of state seemed less interested in the appalling details communicated by Burzio than in the precise identity of the perpetrators: was it Slovaks or Germans doing the shooting? On December 20, Burzio was asked to clarify.

His reply was over three months in coming, but what it lacked in promptness it made up for in precision of detail. “The massacres,” Burzio wrote succinctly, “have been committed by squadrons of the SS by order of authorities of the German government.” But then, as if to emphasize the main point, Burzio repeated, “All the Jews from a given locale were concentrated far from inhabited areas and massacred with machine-gun fire.”

The second report arrived on March 19, 1942 in the form of a memorandum from two men based in Geneva: Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress and Richard Lichtheim of the Jewish Agency for Palestine. The memo had been given to Archbishop Filippo Bernardini, nuncio at Berne. It was not only long and detailed but, as it turned out, remarkably accurate. Outlining “rigorous measures” not just in Slovakia but throughout the occupied territories, Riegner and Lichtheim described the concentration of masses of Jews in “indescribable misery” and in epidemic conditions that “at this moment are literally decimating these populations.” In addition to this slow and steady form of death, “thousands of Jews in Poland and in the parts of Russia occupied by Germany have been executed by German troops.” The two men drew particular attention to Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary, and unoccupied France—i.e., Catholic or largely Catholic countries where such measures could “perhaps still be rescinded or at least alleviated by the intervention of the Holy See” (emphasis added).

We know for certain that Archbishop Bernardini forwarded this memorandum to the Vatican, and that it was received at the secretariat of state. We know because Bernardini’s accompanying letter was published in Volume VIII of the official Vatican documents. But the editors omitted the actual text of the memorandum itself, sterilely observing in a footnote that “it gives a record of anti-Semitic measures taken in Germany and in the territories annexed by Germany or controlled by Germany.”

A third document concerning the Einsatzgruppen massacres was a belated report from the Eastern Rite archbishop of Lvov. In the summer of 1941, thousands of Jews had been butchered by detachments of the mobile killing squads, not without the help of Ukrainian peasants. A year after the massacres began, the archbishop wrote to the Vatican:

For no less than a year, there has not been a day when the most horrible crimes, murders, robberies and rapes . . . have not occurred. . . . [T]he number of Jews massacred in this our small region has certainly exceeded 200,000 . . . and as the army advances toward the East, the number of victims multiplies.2

A fourth and similarly disturbing letter arrived at the Vatican on December 12, 1942 from Anthony Springovics, archbishop of Riga in Latvia:

The barbarity of nationalist doctrine has appeared in Latvia in all its cruelty and abomination: almost all of the Jews here have now been killed. Just a few thousand were left in the ghetto of Riga, the greater part of these imported from exterior regions.

The archbishop’s information was quite accurate. In November 1941, Russian POW’s had dug execution pits deep in the forest some miles away from the ghetto in Riga. To the edge of that forest, rows and rows of blue buses transported 27,000 Jews, who were shot there by the Einsatz squads over the course of just ten days.

By the end of 1942, then, the Vatican had received at least four reports about the Einsatzgruppen massacres, their credibility vouchsafed in three cases by the ecclesiastical status of their sources. All four reports would soon be eclipsed by a mound of communiques about the horrors being enacted in obscure Polish towns with names like Treblinka.




At about the same time that he was clarifying exactly who was shooting innocent Jewish civilians in the overrun territories of the Soviet Union, the Vatican’s chargé d’affaires in Bratislava was also reporting on deportations. On March 9, 1942, Burzio sent news of the “imminent” transport of Slovakian Jews to Galicia and the Lublin district, concluding that this was “the equivalent of condemning the greater part of them to their deaths.” A day later, Archbishop Bernardini, the nuncio in Berne, forwarded a message to the same effect from Agudath Israel, the international organization of Orthodox Jews. Ten days later, the nuncio in Budapest reported a petition from the chief rabbi of Budapest begging the Pope to intercede on behalf of the Slovakian Jews.

In May 1942 another letter arrived, from the Italian priest Pirro Scavizzi. This remarkable man, having served as an army chaplain at the front in the Great War, and almost sixty years old when World War II broke out, had managed to get himself assigned as a military chaplain on the hospital trains of the Sovereign Order of Malta. In that capacity, working formally for the Axis powers, he traveled to Germany, Poland, and the Ukraine and was able, as he put it later in life, “to see at close quarters the appalling cruelties of the Hitlerite organizations, especially of the SS, and so to inform the Holy Father.” In his May 12, 1942 report, he wrote on the basis of direct observation that the massacre of the Jews in the Ukraine was “complete.” Meanwhile, he added, the “anti-Jewish struggle” in Poland was proceeding inexorably and “becoming worse” by means of deportations and mass executions.

The author of this document was someone whom the Vatican had no reason to distrust or to suspect of exaggeration or propaganda. (When Scavizzi died in 1964, he “was surrounded,” in the words of one historian, “by the scarlet of cardinals, the violet robes of bishops, military uniforms, and uniforms of knightly orders.”) He had easy access to the Pope and a relationship of trust with the Pope’s family. Moreover, he was serving as a chaplain not just to the Italian army but also to the Wehrmacht, which gave him a close-up view of the atrocities.

At roughly the same time as Scavizzi’s report on Poland, disturbing news was also arriving from Croatia. Although that country was statistically one of the most Catholic in Europe, the Holy See did not initially have diplomatic relations with the Ustasha regime there. Nonetheless, an “apostolic visitor,” a Benedictine abbot named Giuseppe Mar-cone, served as de-facto nuncio, and on July 17 was able to report that Jewish civilians in Croatia had been prepared for deportation and almost certain death. The force of his communiqué was soon augmented by a dispatch to Pius XII by Miroslav Freiberger, chief rabbi of Zagreb. “The last remnant of our community,” the rabbi’s letter began, “finds itself in the most dire possible situation,” and in this emergency “our eyes are fixed upon Your Holiness.” Freiberger appealed to the Pope to help abandoned children and orphans, and women widowed by the deportation of their spouses, to remain in their homes.

Meanwhile, in Vichy France, the papal nuncio, Archbishop Valerio Valeri, was writing to the secretary of state that almost 13,000 “stateless” Jews—mostly Polish and Czech refugees then resident in France—had been concentrated in Paris for deportation to the Ukraine. One week later, Valeri could announce to Maglione that deportations were now occurring in the unoccupied sector of France as well. Perhaps most alarming, the transport included ill and elderly Jews who were clearly not being sent for purposes of labor. Valeri closed his letter by reassuring Maglione that he had defended the Pope against the charge that the Holy See was “shrouded in silence” in the face of diabolical evil.

Just a few days later, on August 10, Gerhart Riegner, the representative of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, sent a telegram to his colleagues in London and New York. In this now-famous document, Riegner told urgently of an “alarming report” from someone with “close connections with the highest German authorities.” According to Riegner’s informant, a plan had recently been discussed in the headquarters of the Führer whose aim was to deport, concentrate, and exterminate “at one blow” the millions of Jews then still dwelling in territory controlled by the government of Germany. The timing and method of the extermination were not yet clearly established, but the autumn had been discussed and so, too, had been the use of prussic acid.

It is not clear whether this specific information ever reached the Vatican, but its general point was almost simultaneously to be confirmed for the German church, and possibly for the Vatican, by the enigmatic figure of Kurt Gerstein. Through a chain of almost incredible coincidences, it had fallen to Gerstein, an SS colonel who for reasons of his own had become obsessed with infiltrating the apparatus of death, to judge the feasibility of changing the deadly poison used in the gas chambers from carbon monoxide to Zyklon-B. In this capacity, and in the presence of the villainous Christian Wirth, the SS head of the death camps, Gerstein was able to witness, on August 19, 1942, the experimental gassing of some 5,200 Jews with carbon monoxide at Belzec.



In this case, the experiment was particularly gruesome. To begin with, it took almost three hours for the diesel engine to start and during the long wait the prisoners (according to Gerstein’s report) could be heard loudly weeping. Finally the engine caught, and within a little over a half-hour the victims had all expired, the doors were opened, and a corps of “teeth commandos” stormed in and began to pry out gold teeth and crowns. Wirth collected a canful, crowing to Gerstein, “See for yourself the weight of that gold! You can’t imagine what we find every day—currency, diamonds, gold.”

Aghast, Gerstein wasted no time. On a train back to Berlin, with the improbability that seems to have marked his entire life, he happened to encounter the Swedish diplomat Baron Goran von Otter, to whom he uncontrollably blurted out the story of what he had witnessed. Back in Berlin, he then attempted to reveal the information to the officials at the papal nunciature, but they refused to hear him out because he was a soldier and thus presumed untrustworthy. Undaunted, he proceeded to the offices of the archbishop of Berlin and there handed a report to the legal adviser with the request that it be forwarded to Rome. Whether it was received there is unknown, but it seems altogether likely that it was.

At about the same time (August 31, 1942), a letter to the Vatican reported that 20,000 adults had been deported in cattle cars from Paris, with thousands of children left behind. The writer, a member of a Swiss rescue committee, pleaded with the Vatican to influence Catholic countries to open their doors to children separated from their parents “whom, without a shadow of a doubt, they will never see again.” The phrase was significant: its writer knew, already in August 1942, that the deportees were not coming back, and Vatican authorities had to have feared the same.

In late September, Monsignor Montini, one of the two principal assistants to the Vatican secretary of state (and later to become Pope Paul VI), made note of an Italian source according to whom the massacres of Jews had reached proportions that were “horribly frightful.” And, Montini had been told, worse was still to come. By the middle of October, the Germans would empty out whole ghettos containing “hundreds of thousands of languishing unfortunates.” We know that Secretary of State Maglione read Montini’s notes. His comment on them was: “I do not believe we have information that confirms this, in particular these most grave reports.”

About two weeks later, the Vatican secretary of state received from Myron C. Taylor, the permanent American representative to the Holy See, the sort of confirmation he purported to need. According to two reliable witnesses whom Taylor designated “Aryans,” the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto was under way. Mass executions were taking place in “especially prepared camps,” one of which, Taylor thought, was in Belzec. “There is,” he went on, “not one Jew left in the entire district east of Poland, including occupied Russia.” Did the Holy Father have any suggestions as to how further such barbarities might be frustrated?

Other sources generally confirmed Taylor’s information. In a meeting on October 3, a Polish legation told Maglione that the Vilna ghetto was almost liquidated, and the Warsaw ghetto was being “methodically emptied.” Each day, groups of more than 1,000 Jews were sent away by rail. It appeared that they were concentrated in a camp where they were immediately put to death by asphyxiation; in any case, none of their families ever received news of them again. It was estimated that in the course of the next month, the entire remaining population of the Warsaw ghetto—300,000 Jews—would be sent away.

In his notes on this meeting, Maglione identified the source of the information as “a citizen of a country of the Axis who had visited these parts.” In other words, an eyewitness from an Axis country gave to the Vatican, in October 1942, essentially accurate information about the existence and purpose of the death camps. Another extremely reliable witness, the military chaplain Scavizzi, wrote again the same month to report that the elimination of the Jewish community in Poland was “almost total.”




This brings us to 1943, when reports of Nazi atrocity arrived with increasing rapidity. On March 12, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of North America urgently wired Maglione about a cable it had just received from Warsaw. The cable read, in part:

January Germans started liquidation of remnants Warsaw Ghetto. All over Poland liquidation proceeding. Liquidation of remnants planned for middle of February. Alarm the world. Apply to Pope for official intervention. We suffer terribly. Remaining few hundred thousand threatened with immediate annihilation.

Exactly two weeks later, the three rabbis who had composed the original cable appeared in the office of the apostolic delegate in Washington and “with tears in their eyes” tried to persuade him (as he reported to the Vatican) that “the Holy Father could with a public appeal and plea stop the massacre and deportation.”

On April 8, 1943, Abraham Silberschein, president of the Committee for Assistance to the Jewish Population Injured by the War, passed on to the nuncio in Berne a report on the situation faced by the Jewish communities of Poland, Romania, and Transnistria. The report—one of those the Vatican editors elected not to publish—was accompanied by three snapshots giving rare photographic confirmation of the facts with which the Vatican had begun to be deluged.

And deluged is the word. The Pope himself, in an April 1943 letter to the archbishop of Berlin, stated that “knowledge reaches us of inhuman acts day after day” (emphasis added). In the same month, Maglione wrote in a private memo to himself that the “deportations en masse of the Jews . . . are presently verified in the various countries of Europe” (emphasis added). A few weeks later, Maglione again made a note to himself:

Jews. Horrendous situation. 4.5 million Jews in Poland before the war, plus many deported there from other occupied territories. . . . There can be no doubt that the major proportion has already been suppressed. Special death camps at Lublin (Treblinka) and near Brest Litovsk . . . where they are finished off under the action of gas. Transported there in trucks for beasts, hermetically sealed.

But by then a pattern had been set. A mere four months later, more than 1,000 Roman Jews were shipped to Auschwitz “under the windows of the Pope”—in the phrase of Ernst von Weizsäcker, the newly appointed German ambassador to the Holy See. Not a word of protest was heard. On October 28, Weizsäcker was able to report with satisfaction that the Pope had “not allowed himself to be drawn into any demonstrative censure” of the deportation.




Let us sum up so far. First, the Vatican did have some information about the Einsatzgruppen massacres. Compared with what it would later learn about the death camps, this information was relatively sparse, and probably came too late to be acted upon—especially as this terribly brutal phase of the Holocaust ended rather swiftly. But the information was enough to prepare the Vatican for the news to come.

As for knowledge of the death camps themselves, it is imperative to be clear about what we mean by “know.” Defenders of Pius who insist on his unawareness sometimes use a definition of “knowledge” that would equate it with absolute and perfect certainty; according to this definition, neither the Pope nor anyone else could have known anything at all. But by a simple, nontechnical definition of knowledge as acquaintance with the essential facts and trust in their basic solidity, the Vatican did clearly know about the death camps: about their existence, their purpose, their location, their mode of operation, and their effectiveness.

To be sure, the depth of its knowledge was not the same in March 1942 as it would become over the course of the next few months. And even later it may not have known all of the gruesome details—for example, that some of the children were being tossed alive into pits of burning human fat. But by October 1942 at the absolute latest the Vatican had detailed and accurate knowledge of the death camps and by late spring in the following year it had accurate knowledge of the overwhelming magnitude of destruction. Moreover, its information came from multiple sources, including not only trusted secular diplomats and Jews whose relatives, friends, or immediate families were under the threat of extinction but also the Vatican’s own network of highly trained and able diplomats. These sources, while not completely in harmony, did tend to confirm one another as to the essential facts.

Thus, to the question, was the Pope unaware?—or, to put it another way, was the Pope inhibited from speaking out, or acting more decisively, for lack of knowledge?—the answer must be a resounding no.



Which only leads, of course, to another set of questions, of which the first is: what did the Vatican do, or fail to do, with its knowledge? On this matter, too, the documents shed some useful light.

Thus, in mid-1942, when the chief rabbi of Zagreb turned to Pius XII on behalf of the abandoned children and wives of the deported Croatian Jews, the Vatican secretary of state instructed the de-facto nuncio in Croatia to respond “prudently” and tactfully to the rabbi, reminding him that the Holy See always wished to alleviate suffering and had not neglected to “involve itself” on several occasions on behalf of persons recommended to it.

At about the same time, as we have seen, Archbishop Valeri of Paris wrote to the secretary of state of his efforts to defend the Pope against charges of silence, adding speculatively that what lay behind the Holy See’s posture of “prudent delay and enlightened reserve” must have been the danger of new, draconian rigors in other parts of Europe, a danger that might actually be accelerated by public protest.

Such, indeed, was the Vatican’s own response to the intercessions of others in those days. On August 3, 1942, Harold H. Tittmann, filling in as American representative at the Holy See (in the temporary absence of Myron Taylor) reported to Washington that he had attempted to rebuke the Holy See for failing to issue a public protest against Nazi atrocities. Vatican silence, he had warned, endangered the moral prestige of the papacy and was undermining faith in the Church and in Pius XII himself. But, according to Tittmann, such appeals were “without result,” as he and other ambassadors were “invariably” reminded that the Pope had already condemned wartime offenses, and that to be more specific would “only make matters worse.”

Later that same year, the American and British diplomatic corps made another effort. In a conversation with Maglione, Tittmann mentioned a recent joint declaration of the League of Nations unequivocally denouncing the mass extermination of Jews in Nazi-occupied territory. Could the Holy See not issue a similar statement? Maglione repeated that the Vatican was doing everything possible privately; that publicly it could only denounce atrocities in general, not any particular atrocity; and that in any case it was unable to verify Allied reports regarding the number of Jews exterminated.

In his report, Tittmann cited rumors then circulating in Rome that the Pope might yet take a strong stand. In a very lengthy address delivered on Christmas 1942, the Pope did state that humanity owed a vow of solidarity and aid to “those hundreds of thousands who, without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or gradual extinction.” The sentiment was voiced almost en passant, and the unnamed “hundreds of thousands” were included in a list of six other specified groups. Still, the Pope would later assert that he believed this to be an explicit and firm condemnation of Nazi barbarity.

As it happens, some agreed. Thus, for the second year running, the editors of the New York Times praised Pius as “a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.” Perhaps more significantly, the bureaucrats at the Nazi Reich’s main security office characterized the speech (in an internal memo) as “one long attack on everything we stand for” and complained that the Pope had made himself “the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.”

But most listeners seem not even to have noticed the passage in question, much less to have regarded it as a denunciation of Nazi atrocity. For his part, Mussolini contemptuously dismissed the speech as laden with platitudes, worthy not of the Vicar of Christ but of some low parish priest. On the Allied side, the president of the Polish government in exile, Wladislaw Raczkiewicz, drew up an impassioned letter of outrage, reminding the Pope that “divine law knows no compromise” and insisting that the Apostolic See break its silence and “show clearly and distinctly where the evil lies.”

Apparently, Pius XII was blindsided by such criticism. Shortly after the Christmas Day message, Tittmann had an audience with the Pope. Was it not plain to everyone, the pontiff asked, that he was referring to the Poles, Jews, and other hostages when he declared that hundreds of thousands had been innocently victimized, sometimes only because of their race or nationality? When Tittmann responded that in fact many thought it was not clear, the Pope “seemed surprised.” He went on to explain that he felt he could not name the Nazis without also mentioning Bolshevik atrocities. He added that Allied reports on the atrocities undoubtedly had some foundation but were likely to have been exaggerated for purposes of propaganda.

Here another pattern emerges. From it, one may conclude that, aware as he had to be of the horrors occurring in the East, Pius XII also wished, desperately, not to know, and thus made himself willfully ignorant. Despite inexorably growing evidence, he and his secretary of state pursued a policy grounded in willing disbelief and expressed in what Archbishop Valeri would tactfully refer to as “prudent delay and enlightened reserve.” But a different and more sobering judgment, consistent with the documents, is that of the great scholar Guenter Lewy: “one is inclined to conclude that the Pope and his advisers . . . did not view the plight of the Jews with a real sense of urgency and moral outrage.” The Vicar of Christ knew enough, but did not care enough, to speak more forcefully or to act more courageously than he did.




Does this mean, in turn, that Rolf Hochhuth was right after all when he portrayed Pius XII in The Deputy as reprehensibly complicit with the Nazis? Or that, to cite a more recent and devastating indictment, the British writer John Corn-well is right to depict Pius as “Hitler’s Pope”?

Far from it. For all of his affection for Germany, the Pope loathed its fascist leader, and the idea that he was a crypto-Nazi or in any way sympathized with Hitler or his genocidal program is both grossly defamatory and absurd on its face. Moreover, although he never actively opposed Hitler, and was far from being a philo-Semite, he did do and say some things (if hardly with vigor) on behalf of threatened Jews. Above all, he permitted Catholic religious and lay men and women to rescue Jews in peril. He also allowed ecclesiastical institutions, including Vatican properties, to be used (with moderation and prudence) to shelter Jews, and food, clothing, and money to be distributed to such institutions. Several of his nuncios, particularly in Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary tried valiantly to stop deportations. Perhaps most effectively, he helped prevent the deportation of Italian Jews while Mussolini was still in power, and on this score must be credited with saving lives. Finally, when the German occupation began, he threatened to protest the deportation of Jews from Rome.

Not “Hitler’s Pope,” then, let alone a force for demonic evil—but neither, to leap to the other untenable extreme, a “great and saintly man” (Peter Gumpel) or a force for individual or institutional heroism. Permitting the rescue of Jews—almost exclusively, be it added, baptized Jews—is rather a different thing from commanding or instructing their rescue; and as for the Pope’s nuncios, they acted, so far as we know, largely if not entirely on their own. Concerning the deportation from Rome, the Vatican’s threatened protest, as we have seen, never materialized.

But this brings us back to the claim to which I alluded early on, and of which a great deal has been made by Catholic defenders of the Pope and especially by those now pressing for his canonization: namely, that, in the words of David Dalin, Pius XII was, “genuinely and profoundly, a righteous Gentile.” Dalin, a rabbi and historian, staked this claim in an article earlier this year in the Weekly Standard (February 26, 2001). In so doing, he borrowed a term used officially only by Yad Vashem, Israel’s respected Holocaust Memorial Institute, to honor those who heroically and often at lethal peril to themselves and their families sheltered Jews from detention and deportation into the maw of death.

To dignify Pius as one of the “righteous” would thus place him in the company of undisputed moral seraphs like Raoul Wallenberg and Jan Karski. The former was the Swedish diplomat who risked his life to save thousands of Hungarian Jews from destruction. The latter, a Catholic, twice perilously infiltrated the Warsaw ghetto, quite possibly traveled to a transit camp from which Jews were sent to Belzec, and had a dentist pull several of his teeth so that, if stopped while carrying back to London the intelligence he had gathered about the Nazi apparatus of extermination, he could not be exposed by his Polish-accented German.

Does Pius belong in this moral category? Although the Vatican was, along with England, the government in the West best informed about Nazi atrocity, and although it received numerous appeals for speech or action from the Polish government-in-exile, from Allied diplomats, from Jewish leaders and organizations, and even from Catholic prelates (among others), Pius never came close to taking this sort of heroic action for the Jews. Whatever he did say—and Dalin is right to underline that he was not simply “silent”—it was never as emphatic, unequivocal, or explicit as, for example, the words he spoke on behalf of the city of Rome and its sanctity when pleading with the Allies to refrain from aerial bombardment, or as the words he spoke, after the war, against Communists and Communism.

Nor, as I have tried to suggest, did he do anything, by way of shelter and rescue, on anything like the magnitude suggested by his defenders. On this score, Dalin cites approvingly the Israeli author and diplomat Pinchas Lapide, who in The Last Three Popes and the Jews (1967) estimated that Pius “was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands.” Dalin also invokes the “many well-known Jews”—including Albert Einstein, Golda Meir, Moshe Sharett, “and innumerable others”—who after the war “publicly expressed their gratitude to Pius.”

At the time Pinchas Lapide publicized his now thoroughly discredited estimates, he was attempting to secure Vatican recognition for the state of Israel. Meir and Sharett, foreign ministers of the new state, had similar motives. After the war, many Jewish families were also understandably anxious to recover children who had been hidden (most of them without the knowledge, encouragement, or permission of the Pope) by hundreds of Catholic religious houses and institutions throughout Europe, and thus had their own reasons to ingratiate themselves with the Vatican. Other statements are explainable by the campaign—in the end successful—to have the Vatican officially repudiate the age-old Christian charge that Jews were collectively guilty of deicide, and thus help prevent a catastrophic recurrence of murderous anti-Semitism. And some Jewish statements of thanks to the Pope were made, as the author Susan Zuccotti has put it, in “benevolent ignorance,” or out of what she calls “exaggerated notions of Catholic centrality.”

Dalin is certainly guilty of the latter. “Following Pius’s instructions,” he writes with poorly placed assurance, “individual Italian priests, monks, nuns, cardinals, and bishops were instrumental in preserving thousands of Jewish lives.” Everything after the participial phrase is true; such churchmen and churchwomen, not to mention hundreds of Italian lay heroes, were instrumental in rescue. But the phrase “following Pius’s instructions” assumes precisely that which remains to be proved and for which Zuccotti, in her thorough archival research, has found no evidence whatsoever. It is sheer fantasy to believe that Pius was managing even an Italian-wide campaign of rescue, much less a Continental one. More outlandish still is Dalin’s assertion, in a recent interview with the Catholic news agency Zenit in Rome, that Pius XII “saved more Jewish lives than any other person”—including Wallenberg—and that he was “the greatest defender we Jews have ever had, and precisely at the time when we needed it.”




Somewhat closer to the mark, although less pertinent to our theme, is Dalin’s observation that “almost none of the recent books about Pius XII and the Holocaust is actually about Pius XII and the Holocaust.” Rather, he writes, their real subject has to do with an intramural ecclesiastical debate over the present and future direction of the Church in which the Holocaust is “simply the biggest club available for liberal Catholics to use against traditionalists.” To put it crudely, attacks on Pius XII conceal an attack on the present Pope, John Paul II.

In at least one case, namely, John Cornwell, Dalin is surely right. There can be little question that, in Hitler’s Pope, Cornwell took up his pen in part to try to stop John Paul’s initiative of canonizing Pius XII, or that part of his ire, as Dalin puts it, is directed at “aspects of the Church that John Paul II now represents.” What is wrong with the Church now and what threatens its future, Cornwell believes, is what Pius’s own pontificate exemplified: an autocratic style, obscure factionalism among the keepers of doctrinal orthodoxy, and, in general, premodern ways of conceiving the church’s structure and role in the world. In a kind of moral rage at these things, Cornwell produced a diabolical portrait of a man who was really—as Cornwell himself admits at one point—only deeply flawed.

But what is the case with Cornwell is not the case with other Catholic authors who have questioned their Church’s integrity and credibility in the light of its wartime conduct. It is simply untrue that, to quote Dalin, “Nearly everyone pressing this line today . . . is a lapsed or angry Catholic.” As it happens, some of Pius’s most eloquent, measured, and authoritative critics, like John Pawlikowski and John Morley, are in priestly orders. Besides, although motives and personal considerations can certainly distort, they need not; in judging the moral history of the Church, must we listen only to clerics, or those who have been certified as not “angry”?

To repeat, Pius was not Hitler; neither, however, does he deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Karski or Wallenberg. In fact, these extreme categories do not apply. If one were of a mind to extenuate, one might note that everything in Pius’s training, background, temperament, and experience, including his otherworldly piety, had conditioned him to proceed cautiously and equivocally. He was, in other words, a quintessential politician, or perhaps diplomat, at a time when the world, and especially the Jews of Europe, needed a prophet, or at least a priest more alert to depravity and evil.

Still, in other circumstances, and where Jews were not concerned, the Pope did not always act as a politician; nor was he always cautious to a fault. When one remembers those who looked to him, with what they thought was reason, as “the safest refuge of all the persecuted,” extenuation fails.

Postscript: I have touched only lightly on other points concerning which the Pope’s defenders, especially those willing to grant implicitly or explicitly that he was in possession of the requisite facts, have spoken out on his behalf. Thus, they say, there is little or nothing else that, in the circumstances, Pius XII might have done or effectively could have done; and besides, they add (echoing the hint of Archbishop Valeri and others at the time), a more outspoken policy on the part of the Vatican might well have backfired, inciting the Nazis to still more vicious behavior.

These issues are taken up and answered briefly but very cogently by Robert S. Wistrich in “The Pope, the Church, and the Jews” (COMMENTARY, April 1999) and much more extensively by, among others, Guenter Lewy in The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany (1964), John Morley in Vatican Diplomacy and the Jews During the Holocaust (1980), Susan Zuccotti in Under his Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy (2000), and Michael Phayer in The Catholic Church and the Holocaust (2000). Their answers do not lend comfort to anyone proposing a secular or sacred canonization of Pius XII.


1 A newly published book by David I. Kertzer, The Popes Against the Jews (Knopf, 368 pp., $27.95), extends the controversy over the role of the Vatican in modern anti-Semitism backward in time to the age of the French Revolution.

2 By this time, deportations to the death camp at Belzec had begun; the archbishop was undoubtedly referring to these deportations as well as to executions by rifle fire and in mobile gas vans.


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